Ulster's competitive season may be just three games old but already Matt Williams’ men find themselves under the microscope.
Three defeats, two, significantly, at Ravenhill, have not only left Ulster at the bottom of the Magners League table, but also sparked debate across the province as to whether or not supporters should be bracing themselves for another winter of discontent ahead of a daunting trip to the Ospreys on Saturday.
If last season’s freefall was alarming for its speed, the three defeats this term, on the back of two home reverses out of three in the pre-season friendlies, has dented hopes that those dark days would have been consigned to the past.
The boos at Ravenhill on Friday night, after the embarrassing defeat to a hugely unimpressive Newport Gwent Dragons side, was tangible evidence of this frustration.
And yet while the statistics show that Ulster are bottom of the table and the only side in the competition yet to register a win, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the current situation is still markedly improved from last year.
The figures show that Ulster have lost their three games by a combined total of just 10 points, with just a penalty kick the dividing line between the last two defeats to Cardiff Blues and the Newport Gwent Dragons.
Secondly, Ulster’s defence has tightened up considerably, with only one try conceded in each of the three games.
The penalty counts have also improved considerably – while Ulster have yet to receive a yellow card – but there are still too many penalties conceded in kickable range and key moments of the game which explains why Ulster’s total of four tries scored to three conceded have not been translated into a single victory.
Most significantly has been the improvement in the scrum following the arrival of BJ Botha and the continuing work of scrum consultant Reggie Corrigan. Rather than an Achilles heel, the scrum is now an attacking weapon for Ulster, as well as a source of penalties and provides a solid platform to exploit the, to date, impressive ball carrying of Robbie Diack.
Ulster’s creativity has also improved, particularly from broken field play, but the biggest handicap has been poor handling in the score zone.
Against the Dragons, there were over 20 individual errors, a staggeringly high figure, while the conversion rate of chances created to tries scored was roughly one in five. If Ulster have pretensions to be a top-four side again, that rate will have to be improved to around one in two.
For me, the key is that chances are still being created.
The precision, which the team are more than capable of producing on the training field, will come, while another key improvement from last season is a much more united team spirit, so key to weathering tough spells.
Meanwhile, reports from Wales suggest that Gavin Henson will make his return to rugby for the Ospreys on Saturday. Henson his expected to be named as a replacement for the match, having finally shaken off ankle trouble.
The Wales centre has not played any rugby since the Ospreys’ Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat against Saracens back in April.
The news of Henson’s return comes as a boost not only to the Ospreys, but also to Wales coach Warren Gatland,
Shane Williams, another key Wales figure, is also expected to make his comeback from injury against Ulster, while former Ravenhill star Tommy Bowe has been included in the 23-man squad.
OSPREYS: (Backs): L Byrne, T Bowe, S Williams, N Walker, A Bishop, G Henson, J Hook, D Biggar, R Wells, R Webb
(Forwards) D Jones, P James, A Jones, H Bennett, R Hibbard, I Gough, A Lloyd, A-wyn Jones, I Evans, J Thomas, T Smith, R Jones, M Holah